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Port Job Lottery Buoys Hopes

A shot at a $20.66-an-hour job may attract 30,000 applicants for 3,000 longshore openings.

August 12, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

They were lined up by the score early Wednesday morning, even before the doors at the downtown post office in Long Beach opened for business.

Standing in the queue were a 19-year-old who had just lost his minimum-wage job, a 63-year-old unemployed machinist and a 24-year-old single mom.

They had all come for the same thing: the chance to apply for a temporary position at the booming twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, with starting pay at $20.66 an hour -- a princely sum in an economy where job growth is sputtering.

"I had always heard that it was very hard to get into these jobs," said Kevin Gardner, the 19-year-old who recently lost his $5.15-an-hour post as a greeter for a company selling time shares in Las Vegas. He had been waiting in line since 7 a.m.

"Words can't express it," he said. "Joy just came over me when I heard about this."

On Wednesday, local newspaper ads formally announced the "Longshore Opportunity" -- the chance to take part in a lottery for 3,000 jobs at the ports, the nation's largest such complex.

The hiring spree was spawned by an unprecedented amount of goods being handled at the ports, and a labor shortage so severe there that some ships have been forced to sit idle for days waiting to be unloaded. Last year, the ports handled a record 11.8 million cargo containers, and they are on pace to hit 13 million or more this year.

Because the ports have become so choked, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union struck a deal with shipping lines last month, paving the way for temporary, nonunion dockworkers to be hired to help relieve some of the congestion.

It's unclear how long the jobs will last. But in at least some cases, if workers accumulate enough hours at the harbor, they might be able to join the union full time.

Applicants are supposed to fill out a postcard bearing name, address and telephone number. It is to be postmarked no later than Friday. The requirements are relatively simple: To land a job at the ports, you must be 18, have a driver's license and be legally eligible to work in the U.S.

Officials at the ports said they expected to receive as many as 25,000 to 30,000 cards from across the country. The lucky 3,000 will be picked by random drawings beginning Aug. 19.

Some would-be longshoremen evidently thought they could get an edge by using the post office next to the Port of Long Beach and mailing early. Postal clerk Marco Munoz said the crush of hopefuls actually began showing up four days ago when word leaked out about the lottery.

"Today, all I have had to say is, 'Press B1,' " Munoz noted, referring to the machine that would kick out a blank postcard, with postage already attached, for $1.25.

Those who have been watching the job market were hardly surprised by the enthusiastic turnout.

The Labor Department reported last week that employment growth in the U.S. had slowed in July -- only 32,000 new jobs were created -- for a fourth month in a row.

And some economists worry that most openings these days are in industries that don't pay very well. For instance, the mean hourly wage for fast-food cooks in Los Angeles County is $8.11, while cashiers make $9.94 and pest-control workers earn $13.35, according to the latest data from the state Employment Development Department.

"The growth at the ports has been explosive," said Michael Bazdarich, senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast. "It's just the thing that L.A. needs. It's a nice turn for this local economy."

The long odds of actually nailing one of the 3,000 jobs didn't seem to discourage those in line.

"You bet I'm here," said Gilles Depelteau, 63, of Long Beach, who has found it increasingly hard to find work as a machinist. "I have as much chance as anyone else." Two months ago, he was laid off from an $8-an-hour job as a security guard at a casino in Reno.

Others were already employed, but wanted more for their families.

Mark Chandler, 57, of Long Beach, has a minium wage job as a van driver delivering workers to the port.

"In the past, if you didn't have an aunt or an uncle in the union, you didn't have a chance" Chandler said.

Jennifer Terrazas, 24, dropped by from her job in the marketing department of a local business in the hopes of doubling her salary on the docks.

"If you can get in as a longshoreman and do the work, you're set," the single mother said.

Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the ILWU, said that the applicants would have to pass a physical as well as drug and alcohol tests, then get through training that includes lashing down containers to make sure they don't shift when a ship is at sea.

"They'll get the hard jobs," Stallone said. "It's very physical."

The 3,000 workers will join about 7,000 union members at the ports. In addition, there are about 4,300 "casuals," or nonunion laborers who get called to work when the union hall is empty.

Martin Amaya, a 53-year-old homeless Army veteran, panhandled long enough Wednesday to buy five postcards, which he hoped would better his chances of being picked.

Told that anyone who sent in more than one card would automatically be rejected, he promptly came up with another money-making idea: He tried to sell the other four postcards to passersby.

It wasn't hard to find takers.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wages in L.A. County

At $20.66 an hour, the temporary jobs at the port pay more than many jobs in Los Angeles County.

Average hourly wages for the first quarter of 2004

Carpenters: $20.89

Head cooks: $19.33

Machinists: $16.76

Family therapists: $16.38

Pest control workers: $13.35

School bus drivers: $12.51

Floral designers: $12.07

Security guards: $10.49

Cashiers: $9.94

Child-care workers: $9.70

Waiters: $8.09

Source: California Employment Development Department

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